NL CENTRAL CardinalsStarting point: 91-71, 1st (lost to Dodgers in the first round).
Project manager: John Mozeliak.
General contractor: Tony La Russa.
Job description: The investment in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter ($47.5 million from a payroll of about $90 million) leaves La Russa hoping David Freese can handle third base and that pitching coach Dave Duncan can work a miracle or two with the pitching staff (see Hill).
Unknowns: Can McGwire blend into a coaching staff after the uproar that followed his steroids admission? Is shortstop Brendan Ryan as talented as he appeared last year, when he hit .292 and got to more groundballs than guys like Elvis Andrus, Jack Wilson and Cesar Izturis?
Final inspection: This is a fragile team that could be undone by an injury or two but retaining Holliday allowed it to remain a solid favorite.
CubsStarting point: 83-78, 2nd.
Project manager: Jim Hendry
General contractor: Lou Piniella.
Job description: One of baseball's biggest disappointments last season, this veteran team needs a pleasant surprise at the bottom of the rotation ( Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, Tom Gorzelanny, etc., as well as to get its money's worth from the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Kosuke Fukudome. It's on Piniella to construct a dependable bullpen around closer Carlos Marmol, who hasn't inspired confidence.
Unknowns: Pitcher Ted Lilly is recovering from shoulder surgery and could be out until June. Nady, a threat to Fukudome in right field, is regaining arm strength after elbow surgery and could open season on the DL. The Cubs need fresh legs in the lineup, which is why they could rush shortstop Starlin Castro's development.
Final inspection: They were built for October but open camp as the third or fourth best team in the division.
BrewersStarting point: 80-82, 3rd.
Project manager: Doug Melvin.
General contractor: Ken Macha.
In the dumpster: SS J.J. Hardy, CF Mike Cameron, C Jason Kendall, RHP Braden Looper, RHP David Weathers, 2B Felipe Lopez, OF Frank Catalanotto.
Job description: No team in the NL had worst starting pitching a year ago than the Brewers, who had a 5.37 rotation ERA in the year after the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Yovani Gallardo, Wolf and Davis could make this group solid but veterans Jeff Suppan and David Bush are questionable enough that they could lose their jobs to Manny Parra or a spring training pickup.
Unknowns: Can closer Trevor Hoffman stay strong at age 42? Can Jim Edmonds land a bench spot in his comeback?
Final inspection: Rookie SS Alcides Escobar joins Braun (26) and Fielder (25) to give Milwaukee a lineup that could be tough for years if it stays together.
RedsStarting point: 78-84, 4th.
Project manager: Walt Jocketty.
General contractor: Dusty Baker.
New materials: LHP Aroldis Chapman, SS Orlando Cabrera.
In the dumpster: LF Jonny Gomes, RHP Kip Wells.
Unknowns: Edinson Volquez, who is expected to miss the first half recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the Cuban import Chapman could make this a strong rotation if they contribute behind Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Chapman is a potential dominator but no one knows whether he can contribute in 2010.
Final inspection: This team isn't as far from competing as most think.
AstrosStarting point: 74-88, 5th.
Project manager: Ed Wade
General contractor: Brad Mills
In the dumpster: Closer Jose Valverde, shortstop Miguel Tejada, set-up man LaTroy Hawkins, OF Darin Erstad.
Job description: Mills' work starts with strengthening the pitching staff behind his top two starters, Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez.
Unknowns: Owner Drayton McLane is looking to cash out, so a spring training sale of the team is in play. He'd be valuable property if he triggered a trade. Can rookie Tommy Manzella adequately replace Tejada?
Final inspection: Tejada will be missed. Mills faces a huge challenge in his first managing job.
PiratesStarting point: 62-99, 6th.
Project manager: Neal Huntington.
General contractor: John Russell.
In the dumpster: Closer Matt Capps, LHP Phil Dumatrait, INF Brian Bixler.
Job description: Lacking a single player who has ever driven in more than 70 runs in a big-league season, Russell must construct a lineup that scores runs.
Final inspection: Few teams will face tougher decisions, with closer and perhaps 10 roster spots in play.
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